I Don’t Know How to be Sorry: Shame Part 3 By Jacqueline Simon Gunn on 10/30/18 - 4:40 PM

In my last blog post, I wrote about shame-proneness, the propensity to experience shame in response to ambiguous situations that elicit self-evaluation. For example, if Patrick failed a test and he thought “damn, I didn’t study hard enough; I’ll study more for the next one,” this would suggest that he felt guilt. But if he thought “damn, you really are a loser; you’ll never be able to do this,” this would suggest that he felt shame. When internal narratives of shame are not transient; when feeling small, worthless and insignificant permeate all experience, this is shame-proneness, which has long term adverse consequences.

When Mark and Claire came into session, I felt the tension immediately. I gave them each an opportunity to share why they had come in. Both described a history of explosive arguments and interpersonal volatility followed by calm reconciliations, then a rise in tension, then another eruption filled with angry tirades and verbal assaults.

“When he says he’s sorry I always want to believe him. He seems so sincere, but it never sticks. And I never know when things will explode again. Coming to couple’s therapy is our last chance.”

Like what you are reading? For more stimulating stories, thought-provoking articles and new video announcements, sign up for our monthly newsletter.

Mark looked down the whole time Claire spoke, then with his face tight he said, “What do you want me to say. I tell you I’m sorry and it’s never enough. Nothing is ever enough and it’s your fault too. This isn’t all me.”

As I listened to their interaction, and assessed their interpersonal dynamic, I heard statements of blame thrown back and forth, which is common early in couple’s therapy, but I also heard Mark’s failure to empathize.

The ability to follow through on “I’m sorrys” implies guilt, because genuine guilt indicates the desire for reparation. In emotionally abusive relationships, such as Mark and Claire’s, what looks like contrition (which implies guilt) is really the voice of shame. If Mark had truly been able to experience Claire’s feelings (empathy), he’d feel guilty. He’d be able to tolerate the painful introspections that often lead to repair.

But their cycle continued, over and over, even after Mark said he was sorry. When this happens, it means that shame is masquerading as guilt. Shame undermines the ability to empathize with another’s emotions. Empathy requires transcending the interpersonal boundary and experiencing the emotions of another. Because shame is so painful, it disallows this from happening and instead, when the self-evaluative discomfort comes, it gets projected back onto the other; so, instead of seeing the other as the victim, they are seen as the perpetrator and hence the cycle continues.

While studying the relationship between shame, guilt and empathy, I found that there were two categories of empathy. Shame-empathy, which looks like empathy, but isn’t, because it’s not motivated by the pain of hurting someone else, but rather by the distress and fear of losing the other. It’s a self-focused experience, not an interpersonal one. Guilt-empathy, (what we think of when we think of empathy), on the other hand, leads to feeling the others pain and not wanting to do it again.

I heard Mark projecting blame. I watched his discomfort when Claire voiced her concerns. I noticed that he quickly retaliated for the smallest slight. I knew then that this was going to be a huge challenge. Empathy is fundamental to healthy relationships. When I work with couples where one has underlying shame, I know the only way it will heal is if empathy can be garnered, which means the shame needs to be processed. That type of examination is a slippery slope, because any introspection can cause more shame and more defensiveness.

I asked Mark, “What are feeling right before you respond to Claire?”

“I – I. Angry.”

“Can you say more?”

“Angry that she says those things to me. What does she want from me. If she’s going to blame me for everything, why are we even here.”

“I didn’t hear her blame you for everything.”

He folded his arms. “You’re taking her side.”

“There are no sides. My job is look at what’s happening and help you both communicate better. I have a feeling that the things Claire says make you feel bad about yourself.”

“That’s right. She’s always making me feel bad about myself.”

“I don’t mean to do that,” Claire said. “I have to be able to tell you how I feel and whenever I do, you get angry.”

“That’s not true,” Mark raised his voice. “You don’t tell me how you feel. You tell me about all of the shitty things I’ve done. What about all of the good things I do for you.”

“What do you imagine Claire is feeling right now?” I asked Mark.

“Satisfied that she got me to show you my angry side.”

“She looks like she’s about to cry. Do you see that.”

“She does that to make me feel bad.”

“You can’t see that she’s also hurting?”

“That’s because she always makes everything about her. I’m so sick of it.”

Tears rolled down Claire’s cheeks.

“Stop it,” he said. “You’re making me feel bad.”

I let this go on for a few more minutes and then I explained that I needed both of them to enter individual therapy and offered referrals.

Mark insisted that there was nothing wrong with him and that therapy took up too much time. I told them both that we weren’t going to be able to move forward in couples work unless they dealt with their individual issues.

Mark looked furious.

With some trepidation, I said, “I’m thinking that people have said things that made you feel bad as a kid. That’s not your fault, but it’s making everything you hear Claire say feel like the same harsh words. And Claire, without intending, the constant focus on what’s wrong with Mark is emasculating and evoking shame. I want you both to speak with your own therapists, otherwise this is never going to stop.”

They both conceded.

We agreed to continue our couple’s therapy, which I knew would be a difficult journey. It’s hard to get to the shame, but without doing so, empathy will remain compromised. The more Mark understood his shame, the greater his ability would be to recognize and experience Claire’s emotions within the context of their relationship. And the more he could empathize, the more Claire would feel her emotions were heard and valid. The more she felt that she had a right to her feelings the less likely she would be dissatisfied.

* Claire and Mark are amalgamates created to show the relationship between shame, guilt and empathy.  


File under: The Art of Psychotherapy